Branching out, a Zazzo Thiim story

Here’s an old one from 2007.
There has been much said and written about the following subject in the academic community, it seems almost superfluous to add my own comment to the wealth of material already published on this topic. And yet the story itself seems somewhat compelling, like all good mysteries, and more so because it is, quite defiantly, true. The fact that a senior practitioner in literary matters has attested to the honesty of all involved adds a touch of authenticity to the whole situation, and who are we to argue with the judgement of a colleague so esteemed as Professor Zazzo Thiim?

     ‘They were branching out, pure and simple’, he told me, one charged evening at the local pub. He leaned back in his chair and seemed, just for a second, incredibly tired, as it the events of the previous week had drained him of energy. ‘I first heard it reported to me by one of my younger students, a naive fellow whose panicked account seemed ill-judged and unworthy of comment. But then other students and colleagues began attesting to the fact. They, too, had heard and seen with their own eyes, that the local skateboarders were quoting from Alfred Lord Tennyson. I knew immediately that I would have to probe deeper’.

     The old man leans forward across the table and interlaces his fingers. ‘I started that very evening. With a flask of cocoa and a pair of opera glasses, I went down to the local skate ramp and watched them from the bushes. I felt like a television botanist watching the mighty gorillas of some dank, faraway jungle. How incredibly amusing their mannerisms, how obvious the social gradations and rank within their clique, that they might defer to the most able of their group, and lend advice to the weakest. I would surely have watched longer had not I felt a sudden hand on my collar and a policeman inquire as to what I was playing at. ‘We have a name for people like you’, he told me. I can tell you it wasn’t a comforting situation, but when I told him the reasons behind my being there, his face relaxed. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘The poetry thing. We’ve been racking our brains over that one, I can tell you. Come down to the station’.

     ‘Why?’ I asked, ‘Am I under arrest’.

     ‘Not at all’, he replied. ‘We’ve just found one of them trying to break into the library. Perhaps you might like to have a quiet word with him’.

     The lad in question was a poor specimen, I can tell you, a pathetic, individual whose half-hearted attempt at perfecting the skater-boy look was almost laughable. On being asked exactly why he was breaking into the library he denied all knowledge that it had been such a building, that he was under the impression more that it was the off licence. When the constable slid a copy of Tennyson’s poetry across the table towards him he made a frantic attempt to grab it from his hands, only for the book to be snatched away from him. ‘Not so fast, sonny’, the constable said, in his laconic, laid-back voice. ‘First we need to talk terms. We can help you get your fix, but first you must help us. We need your skateboard’, he continued. ‘You see, there’s a little mystery here, and we need it cleared up’.

     The Professor lets out a laugh. ‘I cut quite a figure on the skateboard ramp, I can tell you. Sure, I fell off a few times, but I soon won respect from the posse not only for my aerial acrobatics but also for my detailed knowledge of Romantic-era poetry. Indeed, things were going along quite fine. How glad I was to see that the stories were true – a particularly athletic turn at the board would be greeted with the words, ‘At Arthur’s ordinance, tipt with lessening peak!’, or a bad fall decorated with the expression, ‘lay low and slay him not!’ I must say, I quite enjoyed my spell with the lads, and at no time did they twig that I was a seventy-four year old academic professor, except when I passed around a packet of sanatogan in the mistaken belief that it was a bottle of alco-pops. ‘A fine pinnacle!’, I yelled, heading up the ramp at great speed. ‘And made as a spire to heaven!’ Brad was especially vocal and conversant in Tennyson’s later works and at times he would exclaim, ‘Sluggards and fools, why do you stand and stare? You are no king’s men!’, or even the ultimate insult, ‘Let this be thy last trespass, thou uncomely knave!’ As the sun started to set, the dusk spread out her silken fingers and seemed to caress the shapely ramps, and in the encroaching dark came a camaraderie I have not yet ever felt, not even in the throes of really good group discussion on Hemingway. Joining in with their masculine bravado, I put up the hood of my jacket and, feeling somewhat exuberant, shouted, ‘While Jove’s planet rises yonder, were now to rage and torture the desert!’ Oh, how absolutely wonderful I felt!

     The effect, though, was immediate. The skaters stopped in their tracks. One skateboard, bereft of its rider, swung to and fro on the ramps before it, too, fell silent. ‘What was that?’ Brad asked. Flustered, I repeated my quotation. ‘You’, he said, breathing harshly through quivering nostrils, ‘Are an imposter!’

     The rest of the group crowded in on me. I stumbled, and tried to make some kind of retraction to my earlier statement, but the damage was done.

     ‘That was Robert Browning’, Brad pointed out. ‘What are you, some kind of freak? Who quotes from Browning at a skate ramp?’

     ‘Yeah’, someone else piped up. ‘What kind of a sicko are you?’

     I don’t mind telling you that I was scared. I escaped with my life, and for this I am monumentally thankful. 

     Naturally, the trouble vexed me for ages. Back at the department I toiled at my desk and tried to read into the whole episode some kind of reason, some kind of explanation behind the adoption of Tennyson. I looked at his rhythms, I looked at his metre, I looked at his rhyme scheme, but none of them matched with the rhythms I had heard on the skate park ramps. The content of his poems were also barren in their significance. I could see in his metrical skill and his lyrical genius no link to the satisfactory clatter of skateboard on concrete, no link between his romantic inclinations and narrative expression to the wearing of a hoodie. Late one night, though, thoroughly tired and dejected, I found the skateboard that I had borrowed that night, and the more I looked at it the more I could see that there was, however slight, a connection of sorts. Four wheels, I told myself, and one standing platform, just like the four isolated tenets of romanticism, the stylistically gothicism inherent, the reaction against enlightenment, imagination, vision and idealism, mixed with the surface and sureness of Tennyson’s reign as poet laureate – surely, this was what the skaters were alluding to in their adherence to his work? How relieved I was to get to bed that night’.

     The Professor frowns and he lowers his voice. ‘I wrote up my report the next morning and submitted it to the head of my department. That lunchtime I felt free. In the Spring air I could hear the clatter of a distant skateboard and I nodded, knowingly, to myself. The world seemed right, somehow. The world seemed a better place. But that afternoon I received an anonymous letter.

     How horrendous the news that it contained! It came from an ex-skater, whose adherance to the poetry of Tennyson had been questioned by some members of the group. He said that the skaters were not quoting from Tennyson – oh no – they were reading. There was a book stuck in the overhanging tree, he explained. And to prove their dexterity on the skateboard, the skaters in question would attempt to read a line at random as they were suspended in mid-air. If it had been a crisp packet, the anonymous writer concluded, then they would have read out the ingredients. There was no mystery.’

     The Professor drained the last of his wine and made to stand. ‘The department has been embarrassed by this whole episode,’ he said, ‘As you can probably imagine. I would be grateful if you could not mention some of the more lurid details of this story’, and with that, the old man was off.

     I followed a few minutes later. It was a dark night and there were a few stars hung in the sky. As I walked back to my car I was overtaken by a child on a unicycle, and he was quoting Oscar Wilde. But then, it could have been the drink.

Thoughts from on the road 

I’m on the road at the moment, with three gigs in three towns over three days in three different parts of the country. It isn’t normally like this. In fact I can go for months on end before there’s anything outside of South Devon.
And it’s the weirdest feeling, because a lot of effort goes into travelling around, and it’s all because I stand on stage and say vaguely funny things and try to make people laugh through poetry. In fact, if you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be doing this, I’d have laughed, derisively.
But this time has been different, and I find myself clinging on to every moment. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting old. Perhaps it’s because I still can’t really believe that spoken word is making me do all these things. So I concentrate on small details, such as the carpet pattern in the venues where I perform, the people I meet, the things that I might not necessarily remember.
Last nights gig was in the function room of a hotel in Bristol. It was the most unexpected space, in an urban environment, looking more like a Manhattan loft or comedy club than the function room of a family pub. As the night wore on a full moon drifted past the window, which only seemed to add to the candles and the fairy lights and I thought, hmmm, this is a good existence. We all came together and made an evening for people to enjoy. This night will never, ever be repeated exactly as it is right now.
I spent the night in Bristol and now I’m off to London. I’m looking forward to having a good old poke around Tate Modern this afternoon before the gig, no doubt enhanced by the anticipation of performing to a new audience.
It’s the people you meet that make the journey worthwhile. That’s where the anticipation comes from. It doesn’t even have to be because of the spoken word, it’s the idea that I, and others, have travelled to a specific place to be sociable and cultural and to share enthusiasm. As I sat on the station at half eleven last night in Stapleton Road I wondered where I would be in twenty four hours time and who I might meet.

What influences me?

Someone asked me not long ago what inspired me as a spoken word artist. Now, when I used to run Poetry Island and I was just starting out as a performance poet, I was hugely inspired by other performance poets, in particular Byron Vincent, Rachel Pantechnicon, Jackie Juno. I felt that my finger was on the pulse of the spoken word world and I would watch YouTube videos all the time, studying performance and techniques and generally trying to learn as much as possible. But I don’t do this now nearly as much as I should.
In fact my influences of the last few years have been almost entirely not spoken word based. Perhaps this is a good thing, because it might mean that I won’t subconsciously at least copy another poets style or content. One of the things I’ve been very careful to do is to create my own identity and not sound like any particular clique or group. The downside of this is that unless I’ve seen a contemporary performance poet for real, I probably don’t know much about them. Someone asked me not long ago what I thought of a particular Harry Baker poem, and they were mildly incredulous when I told them that I didn’t know it. ‘But it’s his most famous poem!’ He seems a nice lad.

I’m My major influences have always been music. Quite how these influence me is a mystery. I like pop music, and I kind of see spoken word as being the pop music of the poetry community. The approach of musicians such as the Pet Shop Boys, Sparks, Lady Gaga, Yello, and the way that they stay fresh and continually reinvent themselves, is more of an inspiration. Pop music is ephemeral and it cheers you up for three minutes, but it doesn’t change your life. And I hope that this is what my poetry does, too. I touch on social themes and issues such as gay rights, but I’m quite aware that my poetry will never change the world. 
I’m also influenced by artists working in different genres, such as art, (abstract expressionism, pop art, Tracey Emin, Gilbert and George), performance art, (Laurie Anderson, naturally, and Marina Abramovich), storytelling, (Dandy Darkly), cabaret, (MargOH Channing, Flotilla de Barge), and page poetry (Frank O’Hara), and sitcoms such as Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Flight of the Comcordes. Oh, and also sport. The determination of certain participants in the British Touring Car Championship demonstrate the verve and drive needed to get to the top. I bet Colin Turkington doesn’t realise how much of an influence he is on a spoken word artist!
Funnily enough, i don’t watch much comedy, nor do I know much about the standup scene. I used to perform regularly at various comedy nights and see some great comedians such as Dave Thompson and Mitch Benn, and I really should seek out more work on YouTube from top comedians, as the basics are almost the same.
So there, that’s what drives me on, and if I’ve learned anything from this post it is that I should really watch more and keep up to date with those who excel in my chosen area of expression!

On cutting out the inner editor 

Lately I’ve been trying to write poems that are almost exact copies of those by another poet. In fact it’s been an obsession these last couple of years. I’ve been taking his poems, breaking them down line by line, syllable by syllable, to see how he gets the desired effect, then subtly changing bits here and there and adding distinct touches so that they don’t look too much like the original. The poet I’ve been copying so deftly is Robert Garnham.

I should explain that I am Robert Garnham. You probably know this already. It’s a little trick I was playing on you. But I should also explain that my work, my oeuvre has, inevitably, changed over the last few years. I know more about writing now, more about poetry and comedy and what makes people laugh. I now sit down and write poems with a specific idea and target in mind. I want this poem to make people laugh. I want this poem to be serious, I want this poem to be short, sharp, funny and with a pounding rhythm. And all of this has advanced me beyond those early years when I’d just write a poem for the thrill of writing a poem.

I’ve finally cracked it. And how have I done it? By disengaging my brain while I write. It’s an amazing system. I come up with the idea and then I just write, ignoring the inner censor, the inner editor who wants a specific, desired effect, and it really is most liberating. The poems of the last few years have been some of my best work, but they’ve been more like tightly structured pop songs rather than jazz improvisations. There’s not much wriggle room. I’d also been trying to write in order to fit in with certain types of poem rather than be myself. I’d see poets on YouTube and at gigs and I’d think, hmm, what can I adapt from these wonderful people?

For the last few months I’ve banned myself from thinking along such lines. This has had a profound effect on my enjoyment of performance poetry, it’s let me sit back and enjoy or relish other people’s performances without analysing every small detail. When I first started performing I had never seen any other performance poets, and this gave me an incredible freedom to do what I liked. By disengaging my brain and cutting out the inner editor, I’ve been able to reconnect with this part of my voice. It also puts me under less pressure to write.

The Arrival (A short story)

Another short story from the archives.
The Arrival
A committee was set up in order to plan for the visit. A chairman was voted for, an elderly gentleman with a walrus moustache. He was then replaced with another elderly gentleman. The secretary resigned because she objected to the name of the committee. The replacement secretary used to be the treasurer, so a treasurer had to be found. The original chairman wanted to be the treasurer but the new chairman objected. Both the chairman and the prospective treasurer then resigned from the committee, so a new chairman had to be found as well as a treasurer. The positions were eventually filled with a man who used to be a car salesman, who said he knew all about planning visits. And the Treasurer was shared among the other members of the committee on a rotation basis. Just like a quiz show on TV, someone commented. The comment was recorded in the minutes.

          A name had to be invented. Someone suggested the Visit Committee, but there was another committee called the Visiting Committee and it was thought that this would lead to confusion. Someone else suggested the Committee for the Visit, but this was also voted down because it sounded boring. The person who suggested it was the person who was also the Treasurer on this occasion, and she resigned. A third suggestion was to call the committee something trendy, just like a modern company, a name which would hint at science and progress in the arts. Implosion was the name that was banded around. The secretary commented that it sounded like something from The Apprentice. The person who suggested it was very upset about this and he threatened to resign, but just as he did they came in with the coffees so he stayed on for a bit. This was recorded in the minutes.

     They finally decided on the Systemal Function for the Application for the Arrival of the Visitor and His Entourage. Or SFAAVHE, for short. This was recorded in the minutes.

     It was then time to decide what the committee would actually plan for the visitor’s arrival. There was no doubt that he was eminent, so it was agreed by all that he should have a red carpet when he stepped out of his car. Then someone said that he shouldn’t be in his own car at all. If he was so eminent, they argued, then, surely, he should be driven? OK, then. A limousine would pick him up from his house. But he lived two hundred miles away. This was a problem. They decided they would compromise. He would drive as far as the halfway point and then the limousine would pick him up. It was generally agreed that this was a good idea and it was recorded in the minutes.

          Then someone pointed out that red carpets were hard to find, and they got mucky if it rained. The under-secretary was dispatched to source a long red carpet. She asked what sourced meant and the chairman said that it meant to go and fine one. She asked why he didn’t say that in the first place, and the chairman said that it was business-speak, that’s how they said things in the world of business. The under-secretary objected to the tone that the chairman took and she resigned. A new under-secretary was then voted in and he said that he would look on the internet to find a red carpet. Ten minutes later he said that he could only find a yellow one. That will have to do, the chairman said. And all of this was recorded in the minutes.

          The meeting then moved on to who would be there to greet the visitor on his arrival. One of the members suggested the head of the department, but then someone else reminded her that the head of the department was currently being investigated for fraud and it would be best that he were to stay out of the limelight. The chairman said that this was not the way to treat the head of the department and that he should be there. The treasurer then reminded the chairman that he, too, was caught up in the same scandal, so the chairman then resigned and a new one was voted in. She thanked the previous chairman for his hard work, but then she spilled coffee on her lap. She resigned, so that she could go to the bathroom and wash it off. When she got back to the room, the original chairman had been voted back in. And all of this was recorded in the minutes.

          The next item for discussion was the food that would be provided for the function once the visitor had arrived. Someone suggested prawn cocktail, but they were reminded that the budget would stretch so far. Someone then suggested prawn cocktail crisps, but they were laughed out of the room. Someone suggested those funny spicy sausage things that go on sticks and you have to move them upwards with your thumb as you eat them, and they are often seen in films set in North Africa, but no-one knew what he was going on about, so someone else suggested scotch eggs. Scotch eggs it was. Then the secretary announced that he was allergic to scotch eggs, and someone said that he wouldn’t even be at the function, he wasn’t important enough. He then resigned. A new secretary was voted in, and this was recorded in the minutes.

          Much discussion then centred around the manner in which the eminent guest would be introduced to the members of the department before he entertained them all with his speech. One person suggested a strict clock-wise motion around the room, someone else suggested anti-clockwise. The chairman said that the guest should be left to speak to whoever he wanted, but that the most prominent members of the department should be introduced to him slyly, subtly, so as not to provoke suspicion that the whole thing was stage managed. Someone then suggested name-badges, coloured according to the importance of the person wearing them. It’s what we did in the war, he suggested. Even Hitler wore a name badge. There was a show of hands and it was decided that there would be name badges. The discussion of whether they should be in higher or lower case went on for half an hour. And all of this was recorded in the minutes.

          The meeting had almost finished and no-one had resigned for a while. The secretary was asked to read out the minutes, but he objected, so he resigned. The new secretary was then asked to read out the minutes and he did so beautifully, but in Spanish. The next secretary read out the minutes. This included the reading of the last minutes, which included the reading of the minutes before that, which included the reading of the minutes before that. This went on for some three hours. By the time he had stopped reading the minutes, everyone else had gone home. And this was also recorded in the minutes.

The secretary then resigned, but as there was no-one around to record this in the minutes, no-one actually knew about it.
The visit did not go to plan. The eminent guest was not greeted half way by limousine because he caught the bus instead. And when he arrived at the department, (climbing off the number 443), he tripped over the yellow carpet because he though it was a continuation of the pavement. The head of the department met him, but just as he did so he was handcuffed by the police and dragged away for questioning. The eminent guest was then led to the hall where, instead of meeting and greeting, and looking at name badges – (the font of which was so small he couldn’t read them anyway, and he was colour-blind), he crammed a scotch egg into his mouth and promptly choked, before asking why they had not supplied, instead, those spicy sausage things on sticks that you see in films about North Africa. And on the way to the podium to deliver his speech, he almost tripped over the end of his scarf.

          ‘Ladies and gentlemen’, the chairman of the welcoming committee announced in to the microphone. ‘Let me introduce to you, Professor Zazzo Thiim!’

          Nobody clapped, because the committee had forgotten to send out any of the invitations. It had not been recorded in the minutes.

Bulk (A very short story)

Out with the lads, Friday night, Jake all lairy and Tom all leery and all of them pretty beery, darts, pool, lager, perving over women, playful shoulder punches and heterosexual hugs, rhythmic belching on a hot summers night.          And Jake says, ‘Here’s Pete’.

          And you know past midnight the bars still open and the goodness the dwells within every soul, open minded and ready to accommodate this new friend, Pete.

          ‘Alright, Pete?’

          Bloody hell!

          Pete is a fifty six tonne sperm whale.

          ‘Pete’s famous’, Jake says, ‘Cos he can drink like a fish. Can’t you, Pete?’

          Pete grins.

          His polo shirt only just fits.

          ‘I’ve just been playing pool’, he says. ‘But I leaned on the table and the legs broke. Completely collapsed! But I won the game anyway because all of the balls just happened to go down the holes in the exact right order. We had to leg it’.

          I want to ask him how he can leg it when he has not got legs.

          ‘Up till then’, he says, ‘It was going swimmingly’.

          I also want to ask him how he can hold the cue with his flappy little fins but I’m afraid he might give me a slapping.

          ‘Let’s go out and get a curry’, Jake suggests.

          ‘Or a kebab’, says Tom.

          ‘I don’t know about you guys’, says Pete, ‘But I’d love some krill. I think there’s an all night plankton place near here’.

          At this moment we hear some loud mouthed skinhead at the bar tell a joke in which the punchline denigrates certain sea-based large mammals.

          ‘Just what did you say?’, Pete asks.

          The skinhead looks somewhat taken aback.

          ‘Sorry mate, I didn’t realise you were a whale. I couldn’t tell from the accent’.

          But now we’re beginning to warm to Pete and plans are made to get a taxi back to our place. Helpfully, Jake suggests we might need a six seater, without drawing attention to Pete’s bulk, the elephant in the room.

          ‘We could watch a dvd’, Pete says. ‘But not something sad. I always start to blubber’.

          ‘You could stay over’, Tom says. ‘I could make up some beds’.

          ‘That’s fine, I can always sleep in the bath’.

          At that moment a fight broke out at the pool table. One of the combatants lobs the cue ball, it sails through the air and goes straight into Pete’s blowhole, where it lodges, and he dies.

The Day This Summer I Almost Gave Up On Spoken Word

It’s been a strange year for a lot of reasons. Professionally for me, it’s been a very good year with lots of opportunities and reasons to get excited about the future, some of which I can’t reveal right now. But just a few months ago it looked very different.

I was reminded of this by the retirement of Nico Rosberg, the current formula one world champion. For those uninitiated with motor racing, he won the world championship after a thrilling duel with Lewis Hamilton, reckoned by many to be the best driver in the world today, then promptly announced his retirement. It was a brave and honest move.
This summer I performed at the Edinburgh Fringe. I was only there for a week, but the usual Fringe madness was endemic, the seemingly endless cycle of promoting and leafleting, flyering, talking, then putting on a show in front of three people at the most. I was getting audiences at least, but I was not having the best of times, in a noisy venue which was very supportive and friendly and yet wholly unsuited to my show, which demanded long periods of quiet. Consequently I did not enjoy the experience. However, I did appear at a few other shows, as a guest at Stand Up and Slam, which my poetry helped the Poet team to a resounding success, and at the Boomerang Club, where I headlined on the very last day of the fringe.
By this time I was feeling a little frazzled by the whole experience. I’d also had one or two problems, such as losing my passport, so while I should’ve been flyering and leafleting, I was making phone calls and stressing about the passport, because I had a trip to New York and it was looking like I wouldn’t have a passport in time to get there. I’d also had to move accommodation for the last day of my stay due to another procedural problem. So it was all quite stressful.
On the penultimate night I thought, hmmm, why don’t I give it all up? The possibility of a promotion had come up at work, and this would mean less spoken word, perhaps I ought to go for the promotion and not do any spoken word at all, become a professional and competent retail manager instead. And as the penultimate day wore on I thought more and more that this was the right decision.
So I planned the set for the Boomerang Club in the knowledge that this might be my last ever performance anywhere. And where better to do a last performance, but headlining in Edinburgh? It would be a great story. Something to remember for the rest of my life while ploughing ahead into the beauty of a career in retail.
On the way to the gig from my new lodgings, I walked along listening to music, walked past the Courtyard, and someone recognised me from the Stand Up and Slam event, they acted as if they’d just seen a celebrity. It made me feel good.
The show went well and I finished on my poem ‘Plop’, which I normally start routines with. I did this because it was a little symbol to myself, a little nod. The show went very quickly, and I sat down and thought, well, that’s done then. And now I’m a retail manager.
Getting home to Devon took about twelve hours and when I finally arrived my mind was blank. But then something weird happened the next morning. It was like my brain had been wiped, that the whole future of spoken word seemed a blank canvas on which I could completely start again.
And instead of retiring, I found myself acting as if I was a complete newcomer. I set in motion a system of rehearsing and concentrating on performance skills. I decided to try and learn all of my new material. And I decided to have fun. Why should I stop doing the only thing I’m halfway decent at?
And I decided not to go for the promotion.
It’s a gamble that has paid off. I’ve got a few opportunities and projects which are quite advantageous, financially, and I’m even considering reducing the number of hours I do in my day job to accommodate these. This whole half year has been a complete reinvention. And of course, I had a fantastic gig in New York, once I’d sorted my passport out, winning over a cabaret crowd in Greenwich Village right next door to the Stonewall Inn. 
It’s been a weird year, and I’m so glad that I didn’t Do A Nico!

At the Duplex on a Friday night.

I’ve never felt gayer than I did on Friday night. Well, obviously I have. I mean, the times I’ve been doing gay things, you know, the really gay things, but this was more symbolic. Because the gig was at the Duplex in Christopher Street, the gayest road in the world, quite possibly, opposite the Stonewall pub and the gay rights memorial. And right outside the venue, with all of this gayness, was a poster with my face on it. And it’s been there for weeks!
I arrived and met up with Mark Wallis and his partner Bart Greenberg. I’d known Mark for a few years when he still lived in England, and even then he was performing as I Am Cereal Killer, a kind of camp punk spoken word artist with bright red hair and face make up. His partner Bart is a playwright and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the New York cabaret scene.
Also there were a couple of actors who Bart had hired to do a rehearsed reading of his new play, and then two very familiar and wonderfully flamboyant characters arrived. First was Margoh Channing, drag queen and cabaret artist with her giant hair and costume, her new show, Hung, about to be performed in New York, and then Dandy Darkly, the drag clown spoken word storyteller, with his pointed shoulder pads and sequinned one piece cat suit. I felt very plain in comparison.

We were shown upstairs to the green room, which is a fully functioning flat over the venue, and I did a mic test on stage with the actors, it all felt so professional and very real. And as always happens in these situations, a camaraderie emerged between the performers as we prepared ourselves in the apartment upstairs with its views down on to the small park where the gay rights statues attract tourists.

I couldn’t have asked for a better audience for my New York debut, and it felt a real privilege to headline with these acts. I’d seen Dandy before in Edinburgh and I have always been a huge fan, and I’d seen I Am Cereal Killer, but Margoh Channing was a revelation, hilarious and touching, tender, human and very funny. Nancy Stearns sang a fantastic song about being in love with a young gay man, and Bart’s wonderful play was about a gay relationship.

I think I purposefully downplayed my performance because there was no way I could compete with all of the others, but people were very kind and they laughed in all the right places, and I had to change the set order on stage as I’d meant to do a couple of serious poems. However, the audience were up for laughter and a momentum had built up. So many people wanted to chat afterwards and amazingly I sold out of the books I’d brought with me!
We went back to the green room apartment, where I felt guilty at just sitting on the sofa as the others showered and changed into their civilian clothes. But as I sat there I pondered on how amazing the gig had been, and how it could possibly even be my best one yet. I was most relieved that my humour seemed to translate well to the American audience, and that the crowd were very definitely on my side and intent on enjoying themselves.
But most of all it was the cabaret scene that I loved the most. I think I fitted in because I was, in a way, the straight man, with his shirt, tie and jacket. Drag queens, drag clowns, cabaret acts and singers, they all made me feel so welcome and I’ve made a whole load of new friends. I’d love to see them all again some time. Perhaps this should be a regular thing?

10 Exciting Things You Might Not Know About Me (Number Eight will shock you!)

1- I used to babysit for Chesney Hawkes’ next door neighbour.
A long time ago, when I was studying for my A Levels, I used to babysit for a Dutch couple in a very posh house in Sunningdale. Which meant sitting in a strangers living room studying. Except there was a season of Neil Simon films on and I’d watch those instead. Anyway, when the couple came back one night they revealed that Chesney Hawkes lived next door. Perhaps I should have invited him round for a cuppa. I never saw him.
2- I used to date Michael Caine’s niece
Yes, shocking, isn’t it? I won’t reveal anything else about her except that we were good friends and I would love to get back in contact with her. Actually she might have been his cousin, but ‘niece’ sounds better. She was from Guyana, a place which I’ve felt a special affinity to ever since.
3- I was in Japan a couple of weeks before the tsunami.
The tsunami affected me deeply because all I could think about was the people I’d met and how much I’d loved Tokyo.
4- Elton John used to walk his dog past my grandparents house.
Apparently. Before he was mega famous. This would have been the early seventies before he moved to Old Windsor. I never saw him, but my sister did work experience in a book shop in Virginia Water. One day Elton John came in and bought four hundred quids worth of books. He saw another in the window that he wanted and my sister laddered her tights climbing in to get it for him. All she would go on about was her tights and I was thinking, wow, you met Elton John!
5- Danny la Rue once held the newsagents door open for me.
He was doing the summer season in Torquay and he’d popped in to the newsagents in Brixham to buy a paper. I said thank you and he smiled very sweetly at me.
6- I was almost on the David Letterman Show.
The last time I stayed in New York I stayed in a hotel next to the theatre where his show was filmed. They started the new season the day I arrived and I saw a queue, so I joined it. There were people in the queue from all over the US. You had to apply for a ticket. I got to the front of the queue and the lady on the desk said, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘England’, quoth I. ‘Hang on’, she said, ‘I’ll call the producers’. A couple of men came down, wearing Letterman baseball jackets, and we chatted, and I said I just wanted to see how the show was put together. They asked for a phone number so I gave them my mobile. I said guys I was staying next door. The producer said that his name was also Robert. They seemed very keen that I should come and watch the show but they never called. They never called.
7- I’ve seen UFOs but still don’t believe in them.
Growing up near Heathrow, you get used to aircraft and lights in the sky. One night there we two bright lights just hovering over the airport. It was kind of spooky. They then zipped to the other side of the sky and just hung there. While this was happening, there were no planes taking off or landing. I’ve got my theories, including satellites and surveillance, but if was certainly spooky. The other thing I saw was when I was at middle school, there was something metallic and pyramid shaped high up in the sky, just sat there. I have no idea what it was, but it was real, and I don’t think there were any aliens in it. What’s so fascinating about Staines that you’d travel from the other side of the Galaxy?
8- I was in a plane that ran out of fuel over the Atlantic.
Air Transat, bless them. The pilot said, ‘Personally, I think we can make it, but my first officer advises me that we should stop and take on more fuel’. We landed at Goose Bay military base in Newfoundland. A couple of years later another Air Transat plane ran out of fuel and had to glide to the Azores. Look it up. It’s an amazing story.
9- Two generations of my family were suspected of spying.
During the war, and a blackout during the blitz, my Grandmother in London accidentally let a bonfire flare up again in the back garden. An air raid warden arrested her and she had to appear at court where she swore blind that she wasn’t a German spy.
In the 1970s my dad worked abroad for the Ministry of Defence and when he flew back my mother and his brother went to the military base to wait for him. They decided to wait on the perimeter fence with a pair of binoculars. They were escorted away by the military police. They swore blind that they weren’t Russian spies.
10- My dad, uncle, grandfather and myself, (three generations), all had birthdays on January 2nd.
January 2nd, if you must know.

You Can’t Put Tinsel on Loneliness

Here’s my Christmas poem for this year.

Amid the tinsel of a November Weatherspoons 

A cold air nip as the log fire cracks

Alone at table 67, traditional breakfast 

No one to share the superfluous hash brown with.

You can’t put tinsel on loneliness.
Twenty years of solo meals and microwave Christmas puds

And naps in party hats and texts from exes

And pondering on paperwork to pass the time

Or at least the polishing or painting of skirting boards

You can’t put tinsel on loneliness.
You can’t put fake snow on despair 

You can’t hang angst on a tree

You can’t parcel up and shrink wrap disappointment

You can’t fill a stocking with ennui

You can’t put tinsel on loneliness.
A mardy face sneering under a felt red Santa hat

Randy nights of crackers pulled, curtains drawn and candles snuffed

Christmas Eve spending the day at your mothers, as a ‘friend’

Unwrapping just the one present and finding its a tea towel

It’s the thought that counts 

You can’t put tinsel on loneliness.
Here he comes now, Josh, duty manager,

Yes everything’s all right with my meal, tell me how you’d feel

These cold mornings just expose the emptiness of the galaxy 

And the dichotomy between companionship and the briefness of our existence,

Yes, everything’s all right with my meal, but

You can’t put tinsel on loneliness.
Table for one, sir?

Leave a coat on the chair so that

Some other loner doesn’t nab your seat

While you’re ordering at the bar

The all day breakfast is only served till eleven

You can’t put tinsel on loneliness.
Back amid the tinsel of a November Weatherspoons 

Flimsy cardboard card advertising overpriced turkey

And the promise of not having to do the washing up

We timed our orgasm for the stroke of midnight

Rhythmic with sleigh bells like a radio jingle xmassified 

You can’t put tinsel on loneliness.